The Lindisfarne Gospels

The Lindisfarne Gospels, c. 700 (Northumbria), 340 x 250 mm (British Library, Cotton MS Nero D IV) © 2019 British Library, used by permission Speakers: Dr. Kathleen Doyle, Lead Curator, Illuminated manuscripts, British Library and Dr. Steven Zucker

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:11] We’re in the “Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms” exhibition, and we’re looking at one of the great treasures of the British Library, the “Lindisfarne Gospels.” It’s an illuminated manuscript. It’s a handmade object.

Dr. Kathleen Doyle: [0:18] In this exhibition, we have the unparalleled opportunity to see the beginning of the Gospel of Saint Matthew, one of the most famous images in the book. The evangelist writing, he’s identified by his name, partly in Greek, and he’s accompanied by his symbol of the man, here winged, who also is identified.

Dr. Zucker: [0:46] By Gospel, we’re referring to one of the four books in the New Testament. One of the authors is Saint Matthew, an evangelist. Here depicted literally writing the words contained within the manuscript before us.

Dr. Doyle: [0:54] Yes, this is an extraordinary copy of the four Gospels, so the accounts of Jesus’ life and teaching written by his disciples and followers — Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. In front of each of these four books is an extraordinary page, typically referred to as a carpet page — detailed, entwined decorations with the shape of a cross.

[1:21] These beautiful pages may have served as the internal cover to make each gospel its own separate book.

Dr. Zucker: [1:35] This particular carpet page is extraordinary for its brilliance in color, its precision in line, its complex, mirrored interlacing.

Dr. Doyle: [1:38] This sort of decoration puts us in mind immediately of the metalwork that has been found in various archaeological finds, most notably Sutton Hoo, the great buckle, which is in the exhibition. We can see ideas that the artist is using in creating these remarkable images.

Dr. Zucker: [2:05] This carpet page, which comes just after the image of Saint Matthew, is largely abstract, with the exception of the cross and certain minute animal and bird heads that are woven into the carpet, in a style that we often refer to as Hiberno-Saxon. It’s in such contrast to the more classical image that we’re seeing here.

Dr. Doyle: [2:18] We have this fusion of cultural ideas, artistic understandings, and that is one of the themes that we’re bringing out throughout the exhibition. That people traveled, books traveled, ideas traveled, and you get this wonderful mixing of creative ideas.

Dr. Zucker: [2:40] It makes sense, because the Irish Christian tradition was longstanding by this point, but influence is also coming from Rome, and this book is a perfect reflection of the integration of those traditions.

Dr. Doyle: [2:47] This book was made on the island of Lindisfarne. It’s off the coast of Northumbria. That monastery was founded from missionaries from Iona, which is now in Scotland, but ultimately from Ireland.

[3:07] So the Irish tradition that’s strong there, but equally the abbots traveled regularly to Rome. We know that they brought back books, they brought back liturgical materials, stained glass. They’re very aware of and writing in a style reflective of a Mediterranean tradition.

Dr. Zucker: [3:24] I think when many people think about the island monastery on Lindisfarne, they think about an isolated community, but it was anything but.

Dr. Doyle: [3:27] Yes, it was one of the great centers of learning in Anglo-Saxon England at the time. I think it also points out how often people traveled. Sometimes, as you say, we think of them isolated, remote, and it is a bit remote, yet people and ideas traveled throughout Europe as they do today.

Dr. Zucker: [3:50] We can see that in this magnificent painting at the beginning of the Gospel of Saint Matthew. We see Matthew, his head surrounded by a halo. His body represented sitting firmly on a cushion on a stool, seen in perspective, perhaps not perfect linear perspective, nevertheless that moves back into space. The pose is a complex one, an ambitious one, clearly referencing the naturalism that comes from the ancient Greek and Roman tradition.

Dr. Doyle: [4:12] Yes, a few steps away from where we’re standing here is the great “Codex Amiatinus.” This is a whole Bible, so both the Old Testament and the New Testament, it’s huge. It has over a thousand leaves, about a foot in width, and it weighs over 75 pounds. We have it open to the famous image of Ezra writing.

[4:38] We can compare how very similar these two images are, the colors of the robes, what they’re sitting on, the position of the feet, even their sandals, the way they’re holding the pen, but in Lindisfarne, it’s flatter, it’s more linear, it’s more stylized.

[4:56] This has been debated, but one can see that as a deliberate artistic choice, reflecting the aesthetic of metalwork pattern and design that’s slightly different from this depiction, which was made in Northumbria within a decade or maybe at the very same time that Lindisfarne was being made.

Dr. Zucker: [0:00] So it’s entirely possible that both of these illustrations were drawing on the same source.

Dr. Doyle: [5:23] There’s much debate in the literature. Are they both copying the same exemplar? Clearly, they’re so similar and they’re working at the same time, very closely related geographically. Perhaps they were looking at the same book or same type of book to produce these images.

[5:48] But this is absolutely the classic author portrait, derived from antiquity, adapted for Christian use for the writers of the Gospels.

Dr. Zucker: [5:52] Scholars believe that the manuscript was penned by a single individual.

Dr. Doyle: [5:56] We have quite detailed information about the individuals who were involved in the production of this book. In the late 10th century, the Provost of Chester-le-Street, a man called Aldred, wrote a very detailed colophon in Old English. He also went through the entire book and put translations of the Latin words into Old English above each word.

[6:22] That is our earliest surviving copy of the Gospels in English.

Dr. Zucker: [6:26] This provides a record of the authorship of the manufacturer of the book itself. Not only the bishop who actually was the scribe, but also the man who bound the book and then the hermit who applied jewels to its cover.

Dr. Doyle: [6:38] He gives us the names of three people — that Eadfrith wrote it, and then he goes on to say Bishop Æthilwald bound it, and that the anchorite Billfrith adorned it with jewels and gold. So the missing person here — who made these extraordinary decorations?

Dr. Zucker: [6:59] There’s been some assumption that it was the bishop who penned it, but we have no real evidence. It’s important to remember that the colophon was produced more than two centuries after the book was produced.

[7:10] Although scholars feel generally comfortable with it, we do want to be aware that the colophon was not made immediately after the manuscript. We now often buy books online, or we walk into a bookstore and they’re relatively inexpensive things. It’s important to locate this as a luxury object of almost unimaginable value.

[7:27] It would’ve taken hundreds of animals to produce the skin necessary to write this.

Dr. Doyle: [7:32] I think we sometimes forget that a manuscript means handwritten. Absolutely every aspect of all of these books in the exhibition, including this Gospel book, was done by hand. Skins had to be prepared, the lines ruled, the script written and copied from another book, decoration added in different colored pigments. It really is an astonishing achievement.

[0:00] [music]

A medieval monk takes up a quill pen, fashioned from a goose feather, and dips it into a rich, black ink made from soot. Seated on a wooden chair in the scriptorium of Lindisfarne, an island off the coast of Northumberland in England, he stares hard at the words from a manuscript made in Italy. This book is his exemplar, the codex (a bound book, made from sheets of paper or parchment) from which he is to copy the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

Lindisfarne Gospels, St. Matthew (detail), Second Initial Page, f.29, early 8th century (British Library)

Lindisfarne Gospels, St. Matthew (detail), Second Initial Page, f.29, early 8th century (British Library)

For about the next six years, he will copy this Latin. He will illuminate the gospel text with a weave of fantastic images— snakes that twist themselves into knots or birds, their curvaceous and overlapping forms creating the illusion of a third dimension into which a viewer can lose him or herself in meditative contemplation.

Lindisfarne Gospels, John’s cross-carpet page, folio 210v. (British Library)

Lindisfarne Gospels, John’s cross-carpet page, folio 210v. (British Library)

The book is a spectacular example of Insular or Hiberno-Saxon art—works produced in the British Isles between 500–900 C.E., a time of devastating invasions and political upheavals. Monks read from it during rituals at their Lindisfarne Priory on Holy Island, a Christian community that safeguarded the shrine of St Cuthbert, a bishop who died in 687 and whose relics were thought to have curative and miracle-working powers.

A Northumbrian monk, very likely the bishop Eadfrith, illuminated the codex in the early 8th century. Two-hundred and fifty-nine written and recorded leaves include full-page portraits of each evangelist; highly ornamental “cross-carpet” pages, each of which features a large cross set against a background of ordered and yet teeming ornamentation; and the Gospels themselves, each introduced by an historiated initial. The codex also includes sixteen pages of canon tables set in arcades. Here correlating passages from each evangelist are set side-by-side, enabling a reader to compare narrations.

In 635 C.E. Christian monks from the Scottish island of Iona built a priory in Lindisfarne. More than a hundred and fifty years later, in 793, Vikings from the north attacked and pillaged the monastery, but survivors managed to transport the Gospels safely to Durham, a town on the Northumbrian coast about 75 miles west of its original location.

We glean this information from the manuscript itself, thanks to Aldred, a 10th-century priest from a priory at Durham. Aldred’s colophon—an inscription that relays information about the book’s production—informs us that Eadfrith, a bishop of Lindisfarne in 698 who died in 721, created the manuscript to honor God and St. Cuthbert. Aldred also inscribed a vernacular translation between the lines of the Latin text, creating the earliest known Gospels written in a form of English.

Lindisfarne Gospels, St Matthew, Cross-Carpet page, f.26v (British Library)

Lindisfarne Gospels, St Matthew, Cross-Carpet page, f.26v (British Library)

Matthew’s cross-carpet page exemplifies Eadfrith’s exuberance and genius. A mesmerizing series of repetitive knots and spirals is dominated by a centrally located cross. One can imagine devout monks losing themselves in the swirls and eddies of color during meditative contemplation of its patterns.

Compositionally, Eadfrith stacked wine-glass shapes horizontally and vertically against his intricate weave of knots. On closer inspection many of these knots reveal themselves as snake-like creatures curling in and around tubular forms, mouths clamping down on their bodies. Chameleon-like, their bodies change colors: sapphire blue here, verdigris green there, and sandy gold in between. The sanctity of the cross, outlined in red with arms outstretched and pressing against the page edges, stabilizes the background’s gyrating activity and turns the repetitive energy into a meditative force.

Lindisfarne Gospels, St Luke, incipit page, f.139 (British Library)

Lindisfarne Gospels, St Luke, incipit page, f.139 (British Library)

Likewise, Luke’s incipit (incipit: it begins) page teems with animal life, spiraled forms, and swirling vortexes. In many cases Eadfrith’s characteristic knots reveal themselves as snakes that move stealthily along the confines of a letter’s boundaries.

Blue pin-wheeled shapes rotate in repetitive circles, caught in the vortex of a large Q that forms Luke’s opening sentence—Quoniam quidem multi conati sunt ordinare narrationem. (Translation: As many have taken it in hand to set forth in order.)

Lindisfarne Gospels, St Luke, incipit page, f.139 (British Library)

Lindisfarne Gospels, St Luke, incipit page, f.139 (British Library)

Birds also abound. One knot enclosed in a tall rectangle on the far right unravels into a blue heron’s chest shaped like a large comma. Eadfrith repeats this shape vertically down the column, cleverly twisting the comma into a cat’s forepaw at the bottom. The feline, who has just consumed the eight birds that stretch vertically up from its head, presses off this appendage acrobatically to turn its body 90 degrees; it ends up staring at the words RENARRATIONEM (part of the phrase -re narrationem).

Eadfrith also has added a host of tiny red dots that envelop words, except when they don’t—the letters “NIAM” of “quoniam” are composed of the vellum itself, the negative space now asserting itself as four letters.

Lindesfarne Gospels, St. Luke, portrait page (137v) (British Library)

Lindesfarne Gospels, St. Luke, portrait page (137v) (British Library)

Luke’s incipit page is in marked contrast to his straightforward portrait page. Here Eadfrith seats the curly-haired, bearded evangelist on a red-cushioned stool against an unornamented background. Luke holds a quill in his right hand, poised to write words on a scroll unfurling from his lap. His feet hover above a tray supported by red legs. He wears a purple robe streaked with red, one that we can easily imagine on a late fourth or fifth century Roman philosopher. The gold halo behind Luke’s head indicates his divinity. Above his halo flies a blue-winged calf, its two eyes turned toward the viewer with its body in profile. The bovine clasps a green parallelogram between two forelegs, a reference to the Gospel.

According to the historian Bede from the nearby monastery in Monkwearmouth (d. 735), this calf, or ox, symbolizes Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Bede assigns symbols for the other three evangelists as well, which Eadfrith duly includes in their respective portraits: Matthew’s is a man, suggesting the human aspect of Christ; Mark’s the lion, symbolizing the triumphant and divine Christ of the Resurrection; and John’s the eagle, referring to Christ’s second coming.

Lindisfarne Gospels, John’s cross-carpet page, folio 210v. (British Library)

Lindisfarne Gospels, John’s cross-carpet page, folio 210v. (British Library)

A dense interplay of stacked birds teem underneath the crosses of the carpet page that opens John’s Gospel. One bird, situated in the upper left-hand quadrant, has blue-and-pink stripes in contrast to others that sport registers of feathers. Stripes had a negative association to the medieval mind, appearing chaotic and disordered. The insane wore stripes, as did prostitutes, criminals, jugglers, sorcerers, and hangmen. Might Eadfrith be warning his viewers that evil lurks hidden in the most unlikely of places? Or was Eadfrith himself practicing humility in avoiding perfection?

All in all, the variety and splendor of the Lindisfarne Gospels are such that even in reproduction, its images astound. Artistic expression and inspired execution make this codex a high point of early medieval art.

Cite this page as: Dr. Kathleen Doyle, The British Library and Louisa Woodville, "The Lindisfarne Gospels," in Smarthistory, August 8, 2015, accessed July 23, 2024,